The loss of life

Reflections on extinction: ontology, ethics and security

Extinction is not just a matter of life and death – for living beings, it is the hinge between existence and non-being. I want to argue that it poses an unprecedented challenge for security, and to the ontology and ethics that attend it.

The Earth is in the midst of what many biologists are calling the ‘sixth mass extinction’ an event in which a large proportion of currently existing species may disappear within a couple of centuries – and Homo sapiens may not be exempt. There is significant consensus across scientific disciplines that this extinction event is linked to human terraforming activity – including climate change, habitat destruction, and the intermixing of species through trade and deliberate introductions. Mass extinction could also be accelerated through anthropogenic threats such as nuclear disasters or the development of hostile artificial intelligence. Outside of direct human action, long-term astrophysical processes, such as the eventual ‘heat death’ of the universe, place distant but very real limits on the continuity of life on Earth.

Ammonite Fossil by Gledon Rolston Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Ammonite Fossil by Gledon Rolston Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Mass extinction lends a distinct meaning to the phrase ‘the loss of life’. It involves not only the loss of individual lives, or even forms of life, but, ultimately, it may even threaten the continuation of life as a mode of existence.

What, if anything, do the concepts, ethics and frameworks of security have to say in response?

International security is premised on the possibility of survival, whether one is a realist concerned with the survival of states in conditions of anarchy, or a proponent of critical or human security, in which the biological survival of the human body is only a minimum criteria for attaining well-being. The  practical meaning of existing concepts of security hinge on the assumption that survival of some kind is possible and that it can be pursued through human efforts.

Mass extinction pushes this concept to its limits, and then beyond them. It questions whether survival is within the reach of human hands – or, as I shall discuss shortly, whether it is unproblematically desirable. It presents a qualitatively different kind of ontological insecurity: not just the loss of identities, but the irreversible loss of forms of being and the unique worlds they form.

Concepts and ontology

Yet the problem of mass extinction has not been broached in a significant way within either international security or international ethics, largely because these discourses lack the conceptual and ontological framework to confront it.

On the one hand, the anthropocentrism of these discourses obscures the phenomenon of extinction. In discourses on security, the discussion of nonhuman life forms is dealt with primarily in discussions of environmental security, where it is treated as a problem of the management of resources for human flourishing and enjoyment. International organizations such as UNESCO and the IUCN are concerned with the protection of ‘biodiversity’ and of particular species. However, they reproduce the same managerial ethos: UNESCO seeks to preserve biodiversity for the enrichment and wellbeing of humans; and the IUCN’s work is dedicated to influencing decisions on the resources allocated to the protection of species valued by humans. Popular treatments of extinction focus primarily on the plight of species that have cultural or political resonance for humans, while even non-anthropocentric ecologists pragmatically frame their appeals in terms of the economic benefits of preserving genetic diversity. In each of these cases, the extinction of beings other than humans is treated as an inconvenience or, at worst, a threat to human ways of life or well-being.

On the other hand, international security and international ethics have no adequate conceptual or normative frameworks for dealing with human extinction, an issue that has been discussed in scientific, philosophical and popular literature for several decades (see, for instance, LeslieBostromLovelock,  Rees, and Weisman). Of course, the possible elimination of humans through nuclear war is more or less explicitly present in the Cold War-era discourses in which IR emerged. However, the possibility of extinction is treated as a kind of generic worst case scenario, a superlative form of violence and prop for normative or strategic arguments. No attention is to the phenomenon of extinction itself.

The lack of reflection on the concept of ‘extinction’ is by no means unique to security studies. Indeed, there are reams of literature in several disciplines about rates of extinction, possibilities for protecting specific species or ‘biodiversity’ itself, methods of conservation and explanation of causes. These literatures tend to rely on counting, modelling, predicting and otherwise trying to describe the empirical evidence of and future possibilities of extinction. But they neglect a crucial ontological question: what does it mean to ‘go extinct’?

In standard use, the term extinction refers to the death of all members of a particular species or taxon. But extinction is not simply a scaling-up of death – either in terms of ‘counting up’ the numbers of the dead, or of positing a ‘more extreme’ form of death. Indeed, death may not even be the right place to start when thinking about extinction. Death, as the saying goes, is a part of life, and a necessary part of the process through which specific forms of life are propagated and through which they evolve. Extinction, in contrast, is an unmaking of being, the irreversible loss not only of a form of being, but also of the ontological conditions for that form of being. It is a negation of both life and death for that form of being. So the concept of death can’t help us to grasp what is at stake in extinction.

On top of this, extinction is beyond human experience. It is something that humans can only partially witness; we cannot see a species die, even if we witness the perishing of the last of its members. Extinction is a hyper-object: it is distributed over large (and sometimes extremely large) temporal and physical scales that far exceed human lifespans and capacities for perception. In another sense (and here there is a similarity to death), we cannot experience our own extinction. Extinction connotes the conditions of the impossibility of a form of being. As the anthropic principle states, in order for us to think about a problem like extinction, it must be the case that we find ourselves in conditions in which it is possible for beings like us to exist and ponder problems like extinction. So no matter how much data we collect on past and possible future extinctions, we can never have experienced extinction empirically.

This is compounded by the fact that extinction is a negative phenomenon – although it is framed as an ‘event’, it is in fact a withdrawal from being, an inversion of existence. While we can envisage the faces and bodies of individual beings or archetypes, it is almost impossible to imagine an absence. And that is what extinction is (or, technically speaking, isn’t).

Nor is our own extinction something that most humans want to imagine. As J.L. Schellenberg argues, humans tend to prefer thinking of themselves as the apex of evolution, and exempt from extinction. We want to have our cake and eat it: we laud evolution for having produced us, but want to be given special exemption from its future unfolding. Extinction is a particular problem for the Western secular humans whose belief system dominates science. By threatening to erase all traces of life on Earth, it negates the ‘immortality strategies’ through which they guarantee the posthumous meaning of their lives. These sources of resistance create enormous affective and conceptual boundaries to pondering what extinction actually is.

Harmony Dodo by Phineas Jones Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Comm Non-Derivs

Harmony Dodo by Phineas Jones Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Comm Non-Derivs

So how can we get our heads around the idea? What kind of language and concepts should we use? We immediately run into problems if we start with evaluative terms, such as ‘wrong’, ‘injustice’ or ‘harm’. In discussing extinction, I’ve used the concept of harm because, unlike most other ethical concepts (e.g. violence) it is not always tied to human subjectivity and agency. Yet without its evaluative connotation, the term is almost meaningless. Why is this a problem – isn’t extinction a terrible calamity to be evaded at all costs?

For many people committed to conservation, this is a logical bottom line. However, as evolutionary biology tells us, the species to which we may commit ourselves to ‘saving’ – including our own species – exist only because other species have gone extinct before them, opening niches in which they could thrive. As Ursula Heise points out, extinction in itself is a creative as well as a destructive process, a comedy as well as a tragedy. Please don’t interpret this as an argument that humans should simply allow mass extinction to occur, particularly when it is possible to modify human behaviour to avoid it. The point is simply that it is difficult to use evaluative language to talk about extinction, and that doing so is open to subjective, and anthropocentric, value judgments that are impossible to adjudicate in the pragmatic terms of science. 

This is equally true with regards to species that exist or are going extinct in the present. The desire to ‘save’ any particular species is based on a judgement that it has more right to exist than any future species that might evolve from it, or take its place. Value judgements of this kind affect ‘triaging’ in conservation: decisions to protect one life form above others involve a more or less explicit belief that some species deserve not only to live, but to be, more than others do. It also suggests that humans have the authority to decide which forms of being are to continue existing, and which aren’t. This isn’t just the ‘making live and letting die’, or the ‘making die and letting live’ of bio-politics and necropolitics. It’s an onto-politics, a matter of enabling and negating forms of being. Indeed, the constant references in the literature on extinction to ‘saving’ species or ecosystems show us that this task is not only one of rational biopolitical management. It is also another refrain in the salvational narrative of Western secular philosophy, in which human agency is thought to replace the divine as the source of order in the universe. In these discourses, security is salvation, and salvation is security. As I have argued elsewhere, this belief may entrench faith in a force (human agency) that is a primary cause of the problem.

Another problem is that mass extinction exceeds categories such as ‘harm’ or ‘damage’ which are the basis for most legal and policy frameworks related to ethics. As mentioned above, extinction is not just a loss or diminution, or a ‘disappearance’ of specific individuals, but the making-impossible of a form of being. I know of no existing ethical concept that can deal with a problem of this nature and magnitude.

The closest concept we have is that of genocide, which acknowledges the  irreversible destruction of ways of life. However, of the many reasons why this concept cannot be easily applied to the problem of extinction, two are exemplary. First, genocide it is restricted to groups within one species (homo sapiens). It is premised on upholding the unique and special status of humans, and, in normative terms, is staked against dehumanization. This suggests that any attempts to extend the concept beyond the species boundary would undermine its basic principles. Second, genocide involves the intentional destruction of a group of people, and the element of intentionality is integral to the principle. The human activities that cause extinction may be intentional in themselves, and humans have a long history of deliberately exterminating particular species. However, the phenomena of mass extinction is not the result of systematic, instrumental human action and cannot be traced back to a master plan. This suggests that any ethical concept developed to confront mass extinction must be qualitatively distinct from, and not just a variation on, the concept of genocide.

Moreover,  the inherent speciesism of many existing accounts of extinction frames the possibility of human extinction and that of other animals as if they were distinct problems. Not only does this reproduce the ontologically troublesome separation of humans and other beings, but it also creates the illusion that humans are insulated against the mass extinction event. Certainly, humans have significant advantages relative to other species in weathering (no pun intended) the challenges of global warming and other threats. But at the end of the day, one of the defining features of mass extinctions is that they turn virtues into liabilities: with sudden changes in climate or other conditions, traits that have helped species to survive for millennia become fatal weaknesses. There is nothing to suggest that humans are exempt from this problem. If we are to grasp the problem of extinction in its full enormity, then we need to understand human extinction in the context of mass extinction, and vice versa.


These conceptual and ontological issues bring up a range of ethical questions – perhaps most importantly, what kind of ethics can help humans to confront and respond to mass extinction? Each of the ethical positions that I consider to be the most likely candidates falls short of the task.

‘Expanding circle’ ethics advocate extending existing conceptions of justice and protection to some other animals. However, since extinction affects all forms of life, and affects them not as individuals but in a relational manner, this approach is not adequate to the task. Universal moral considerability  combined with a responsive ethics would better enable humans to respond to the calls of diverse life forms under threat. Yet it also opens up the problem that humans may only extend consideration to those beings for whom they feel an affinity. Similar problems affect care ethics, which rely on relations of attachment in order to stimulate ethical action towards another being. In these cases, whilst humans could extend care or ethical consideration to anything, the actual scope of their ethical commitments is likely to be limited. For instance, although the survival of invertebrates is crucial to the integrity of the biosphere, the inaccessibility of these beings to human senses, or indeed the abject relations of most humans to them, might preclude ethical responses. Or, humans might only be concerned about beings that are considered rare, while common species may be just as important to sustaining the richness of life on Earth.

A different kind of issue arises with new materialist approaches, many of which propose cultivating an ethic of openness, generosity and even enchantment with other beings as the basis of ethical relations. Whilst this sensibility is valuable (and perhaps necessary in order to avoid nihilism), it is unclear whether it can be translated into a concrete, collective ethics capable of confronting a problem like mass extinction.

None of these approaches can capture the problem of extinction on its own, or unmodified. So it is crucial to start thinking about what an ethical relation to extinction could and should look like, seeking out new ethical visions or synthesizing existing ones.


What does this all have to do with security? The ontological and ethical issues discussed above have numerous implications for the practice of security.  For instance, can existing norms, laws and institutions of security cope with a problem as enormous as mass extinction? This doesn’t simply involve questioning the specific norms, laws and institutions that currently exist, but also the strategy of relying on these entities as sources of security. What lengths are we willing to go to protect ourselves and other beings against extinction – are coercive methods justified, and if so, to what extent? How can security structures deal with the billions of refugees – of human and other species – that are moving around the globe in order to avoid extinction, and what ethics should guide our treatment of them? And how much can we justify in order to prevent our own extinction? Stephen Hawking and others have recently argued that humans must colonize other planets in order to escape this fate. Does the much-cited imperative to secure the continuation of (human) life in the universe outweigh any ethical concerns these projects might raise – for instance, in relation to the destruction of other planets?

But for me the most important argument is the fundamental challenge that extinction raises for the idea of security. The orientation I am proposing does not involve simply extending the concept of security or securitizing mass extinction. On the contrary, mass extinction hugely exceeds both of these strategies and demonstrates the outer limits of security as a concept. It forces us to confront the quite literal loss of life – whether specific species, ecosystems, or indeed life as a category of being. In so doing, it compels us to reflect on the value of existence. For me, this is perhaps the most basic question with which security (and perhaps any discipline) can wrestle.


3 responses to “The loss of life

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